Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nuke'Em High Is Top of Troma's Class

Troma ever really only made two great in-house productions as we know them. The film's original title, "Atomic High School," is a phrase as meaningless yet utterly evocative as "Toxic Avenger."

"The Toxic Avenger" invented its own genre by throwing about 30 years of postwar trash cinema and culture into a single film - slashers, vigilante and revenge flicks, high school sex comedies (which Troma briefly specialized in before Toxie) - and embracing the new mood of humor/horror in epochal 1985 with less class, less intelligence and more New Jersey accents than any of their more polished zombie competition in the theaters: and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator officially making zombies walking gore gags waiting to happen.

Pat Ryan, of the Toxic Avenger and the Fake Troma Movie "Street Trash"

Amongst all the trash hooks Troma threw into a cuisinart for Toxie to happen was the vague intonation of a super hero story. Nerd Melvin falls into a barrel of toxic waste and hulks up into an ugly deformed strongman. Something about this is as conceptually weird in the American way as a high school built too close to a nuclear plant and now some strange mutations are happening to the students!

Lloyd Kaufman embraced the filmic Capra-esque small town, the dumb styles and moods of the moment and filtered it all through a deliberate bad-taste filter of gory gags about death and told it with breathless brashness. The offhandedness in which the guilty and innocent must suffer for our amusement results in choices like preceding a gag about putting a snake down the back of a gay aerobics instructors shirt with the infamous 80s style child thrill kill head crush.

The man whose hands helped decide such neurologically confrontational ordering of scenes was editor Richard W. Haines. Credited in Nuke'Em as co-director with Lloyd Kaufman's pseudonym Samuel Weil (as with Toxie) Haines was replaced by Kaufman abruptly after he nearly drove the cast to quit several days into filming. His full contribution is unknown, possibly as little as one or two scenes.

Fortunately Haines is still the editor, and frantically compensates for his missed directorial opportunity with a bravura level of intensity. There's a ridiculous level of incidental close-ups, reaction shots, exteriors and other assorted second unit work that when combined with Kaufman's cluttered Mad magazine shot compositions makes for a far more polished and confident experience.

Keith Harring posters and a long line of makeouts behind the dialogue

Class of Nuke 'Em High (or Nukem if you prefer) doesn't merely excel at continuing the promise of Troma Toxic Avenger created. Its handily better on a technical level and is second only for basing itself in part on Mark L. Lester's amazing Class of 1984 from two years prior, and the short history of straightlaced gangs-in-school movies. Toxie will always wear the crown for original irreverence. To Nuke 'Em's credit, violence from post-apocalyptic punks in schools is always best played as a joke.

Part of the sheer breeziness is the 2nd-unit assisted mass of secondary characters, but to be fair, the main character roles are also highly archetypal within the context of a high school movie - the wholesome young all-American couple, their goofball horndog and bimbo friends. Kaufman's handling of actors was essentially still the same as when he made Waitress! or Squeeze Play!, the late 70s / early 80s sex comedic style. There's a deceptive filmic normalcy in the contrast that results from embracing popular film trends and allowing the underlying presence of extreme sex or violence to bubble forth half the time.

Normal looking extras, instead of the visiting Troma fans used since 1996

Take also for example the soundtrack. As with Toxic Avenger some legitimate and long-forgotten contemporary singers and one or two bands were hired to write original songs that are completely indistinguishable from any generic 80s youth movie you could imagine. Where Toxic Avenger contained cheesy disco workout music and power love ballads, Nuke'Em is all "rock and roll" that rolls on and on until the pavlovian movie-watching synapses going off in your brain become hypnotic. The better to contrast mental aberrations from the shockingly great trash premise of an "atomic high school" like seeing a clean cut 80s preppie vomit up a mutant.

Frequent comparisons to Toxic Avenger are warranted by the inclusion of many of the same bit players and two major characters from Kaufman's brief Preston-Sturges-Goes-To-Hell-Via-New-Jersey entourage. Robert Pritchard and Gary Shneider, first the hit and run bullies Bozo and Slug, now and Spike of radioactive joint selling school gang The Cretins. Switching roles from Toxie, Schneider is a kilted lackey to Pritchard as he blows Timothy Van Patten's punk gang leader part from Class of 1984 clean out of the water.

A typically strong and fleeting shot - Pritchard's intro

Be sure to watch for the cameo by Jennifer Baptist, then-wife of Pritchard and girlfriend to his character in Toxic Avenger...In an interview she said they met making out in the back of that death race car.

Though further Troma in-house productions would be set in Tromaville, Class of Nuke'Em High was the first and functions perfectly as a semi-sequel running on the same steam. Why also did Kaufman's film cinematography begin to look like straight-to-video with the very next in-house production, the ill-fated Troma's War? That title itself signaled the coming solipsism of the Troma brand and loss of the subtle chemistry that made these two gems so incredibly subversive and fun.

Deus Ex Mutant

Friday, September 19, 2008

HBO Jumps Aboard The Poster Swipe Express

I'm sure this happened unwittingly, meaning to reference the Bangkok Dangerous poster without knowing the source it was stealing from second-hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

You Don't Have To Be Gay To Love Mommie Dearest

You don't have to be gay to love Mommie Dearest, you only need have at least a made the passing acquaintance with childhood traumas like single motherhood, alcoholism, beatings and violence, disappointment, step-parents, obsessive demands, parent-child jealousy...a profoundly sad film with something to unsettle everyone. A quick survey of IMDB user comments shows a empathic outcry that many of their mothers were like Joan to some degree.

Joan the iconic bad Hollywood mother is at least as famous as Joan Crawford or Faye Dunaway ever were, or at least Faye Dunaway. This was the career killer to end them all because it was too intense for most people handle and were approaching it as The Joan Crawford Story or something.

Mommie Dearest is a glossy Hollywood production which inadvertedly does far more than it set out to do; distill the collective unconscious of parent-child trauma into a single unforgettable performance. The visceral gut feelings that result aren't usually found outside trash. Mommie Dearest wasn't even the first time that Hollywood big budget trash about the lifestyle of diva show business and its equally outrageous dark side became canonized into cult status by the gay community. One of them starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis - the unforgettable Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, another landmark in depicting the sadism of abusive has-beens (with familial ties, yet!)

Faye Dunaway and Joan Crawford's careers also share a palpable downfall, although whereas Joan headlined for lovable shlock peddlers like William Castle and Hammer Studios vet Freddie Francis...

Dunaway has been reduced to hideous direct-to-video studio garbage:

Mommie Dearest's other strength is the aforementioned vile vitriol for show business neurosis and insanity amongst its inhabitants, a subject few movies broached with any intent to shock with cynicism and brutality. This is on par with Todd Haynes' mondo Barbie underground biopic, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Need I say it? Haynes is gay as well.

Extremely deft director Frank Perry juxtaposes two moods: The terror perpetual victim Christina Crawford must endure, Christ-like, after the initial euphoria of adoption and early childhood pass, and "the Hollywood star's life" as Joan Crawford obsessively lives by and shames her daughter with. The time when Hollywood invested in propaganda campaigns protecting the wholesome images of its stars has passed with the era of actual bona fide stars like Crawford, making Mommie Dearest all the more compelling as a period piece.

The period this film was made in was also a strange moment, Star Wars and Steven Spielberg films were ushering the age of the non-Oscar Bait adult dramatic film out the back door. The few remaining ones have a heavy layer of melancholy hanging over them. And the ones that did win Oscars...well, how depressing was Ordinary People?

For those who need one more tie between this film, the gay community and cult film legend, look no further than the facts that Paramount re-released the film within months as a Rocky Horror-esque cult event, and the current special edition DVD contains commentary by John "Pink Flamingos" Waters. Plus, you know, all the drag queens seen in Showgirls, another gay-preserved camp classic.

The condolences of every person at Pepsi-Cola are with you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ugly, Ugly Adventures of Mark Twain

Dominos Pizza is running another ad campaign of terror using claymation: instead of crudely embracing the form they attack innocence with bilious Family Guy levels of market tested irony and have Mom murder the corporate mascot in the kitchen. He's a rappin' claymation dude with shades - here you are rewarded with your superior taste with, the marketing department is congratulating themselves on their own cleverness. As products like Skittles, Burger King and this one continue using detached post-advertising hipsterisms like "The Burger King" and acoustic folk songs about candy, it becomes more apparent than ever we need an enlightenment period of sincerity and disciplined craft.

I was reminded of this because a man named Will Vinton made the last earnest attempt to create a corporate mascot for Dominoes in the form of The Noid - an eflin man in a red bunny suit who wanted to kill your pizza and resembled an elderly buck toothed dwarf. Now they spit on his grave with extreme ironic prejudice.

The ads caught on for a while, though The Noid is really hideously unappealing from a design standpoint. I'm willing to bet TV viewers were merely taken by the application of stop-motion, or as it's trademarked in The Adventures of Mark Twain, Claymation(R).

Will Vinton's Claymation(R) also created the beloved 80s corporate shills, The California Raisins. In other words, his trademark is creating lumpy people with disproportionately huge heads, a disturbing amount of facial details, and in The Adventures of Mark Twain's case the inability to move ones legs.

For a far more appealing application of such animation, even the genteel Rankin-Bass productions knew how they'd have the most leeway animating three-dimensional figures if their designs were fun and appealing and simple, a la Jay Ward:

There are tons of poses and varied characters in these old specials, especially Year Without a Santa Claus. No wonder the greatest stop-motion film ever, The Nightmare Before Christmas uses Tim Burton's Rankin-Bass inspired designs so sprightly.

Vinton's lumpy pseudo realistic design eye parallels the descent of 2D animation in the quasi-realistic gutter.

The burden of the screenplay or script on animation rather than storyboard is terrible. Mark Twain has dialogue incessantly getting in the way of the wraparound meta-story: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher join the "real" Mark Twain on a wabulous, zabulous, funtabulous hot air balloon-ship ride into Halley's Comet to burn to a crisp!! Yay!!!

Every now and then the kids step into a story room or get bored and Mark Twain shows up to tell a story, and the narration is mostly all there is. The problem with celebrating a writer's work in the only moving visual medium more visual than movies is it's not best suited to Mark Twain's rote dramatizations of "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" with it's potato-faced Klasky-Csupo looking monstrosities mumbling their lines with wrinkly mouths and waving their giant monkey hands around.

The "Diaries of Adam and Eve" segments dilutes Twain's original caustic satire of the sexes into a Sunday morning bible programming for kids. Those clay figures and puppets also waddled rather than walked and rarely lifted their arms above shoulder length. Good thing the narration straight from Twain makes it all hang together...or so Vinton thinks. A folksy saying here, a bit of profundity there.

One of the strangest features of American animation's decline is the discovery that even the cheap and hurried cartoons of yesteryear contain pleasant idiosyncratic surprises. Older limited animation can actually be fun and unique rather than incompetent, such as Clutch Cargo (bizarre,) Speed Racer (hyper-stylized,) or Roger Ramjet, as John K illustrates.

When bad 80s animation was at its most competent and attempted deliberate ugliness, rather than poor attempts at appeal, the results were at least interesting. Heavy Metal Rock N' Rule have some beautifully ugly paintings and layouts, as do the Mordor scenes in the Rankin-Bass animated Tolkien movies.

In the field of stop-motion animation, Will Vinton's silver lining to the formal stodginess of his imagination is found in the dark corners of the imagination, where there is little room for the cutesiness to which he is inclined. The "Mysterious Stranger" segment is the best moment of the film, unforgettable to me as a child, when I briefly glimpsed it at a friend's house and could not identify it for years. Apparently many people had the same experience, as this excerpted clip now has over five million views on YouTube (under another uploading.)

Like Disney, the only cool things CUTE animation studios do are when they decide to be SCARY. I advise saving your time with The Adventures of Mark Twain and simply enjoying the following.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Two Movies About Jekyll and Hyde

The story of Jekyll & Hyde would best be experienced without any prior knowledge whatsoever. This is a feat which, for lack of this writer's education, would be akin not to acknowledging the audience's knowledge that Batman is Bruce Wayne. You know, like Begins did.

The 1920 Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde is one of the first horror movies ever made, alongside the German landmarks of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem that same year. As an American production J&H precedes Nosferatu, The Man Who Laughs and Lon Chaney's portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charles Laughton's muted intensity was the original horror star role for thespians and the story would be remade on film again in 1931 when Karloff and Lugosi respectfully immortalized Frankenstein and Dracula. Jekyll is neglected as an archetypical monster. What actor doesn't relish the chance to embody a transformation from good to evil? The theatrical production was arrived on the stage of London within a year of the original story's publication and lives as a mainstay of

Granted, Jekyll & Hyde is/are not the icon(s) that Frankie and Drac became but he/they share literary pedigree and they keep making the same movie about him/them even if they don't make money, from Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde to Mary Reilly. Who can forget Martin Landau (as Bela Lugosi)'s exclamation in Ed Wood that he's always wanted to play Jekyll & Hyde, when Ed is in fact pitching him a story of transvestism? Duality and flip-sides are basic building blocks of melodrama. The Jungian thing, sir. Okay, and the added benefit of public domain. JEKYLL. HYDE. THIS TIME THEY'RE COPS.

Robert Louis Stevenson's original 1886 novella had the benefit of creating the damn story and leaving the revelation that Jekyll-is-Hyde until the final chapters. The main characters are Jekyll's friends, who wonder about his increasingly paranoid isolation and the mysterious provision in his will for one Mr Edward Hyde - who has recently appeared in town and made a name for himself as a total scoundrel. What could the good and respectable Dr Jekyll have to do with such a man....?

Well, we all know that by now. So it comes as little surprise that the major adaptations of the story to film are exercises in creative rearrangement. Stevenson's accounts of Hyde are chilling primarily in the continual observations from various characters that to merely see the face of Hyde is to view the face of absolute wickedness - that his cruelty is so manifest in his person it contorts his very features. This goes a long way in conveying Hyde's evil, since Stevenson is conspicuously chaste in describing Hyde's deeds. There's an incident of child abuse early on, and then he punches some woman on the street towards the very end...was this as much sin as Victorian-era Stevenson was comfortable describing?

Given that the theme of repression is paramount, Hyde's uninhibited contrasts to Jekyll deserve far more fleshing out. The films' most interesting creative choices reside there and in Hyde's appearance.

In 1920, John Barrymore essentially plays Hyde as Nosferatu - elongated putty chin and nose (and head, revealed eventually) - before there was one. He creeps and slinks like a vampire and his M.O. is made manifest in the plotline of a beautiful Italian (read: exotic and slatternly) dance hall girl. Prior to Jekyll's invention, his friends take him out to the 1880s version of Hooters to see a little uncovered knee action, where he meets the lovely girl and his inhibition prevents him from getting his freak on. As Hyde he pursues her, while alter-ego Jekyll placates his lovely fiance.

This makes such illustrative dramatic sense that Spencer Tracey does the same thing in 1941, only without the fright makeup. According to IMDB trivia Tracey suggested to producers a realistic take on the story, wherein Jekyll would be driven to Hyde-like activities through drugs and alcohol in the parts of London where he'd be anonymous. Tracey wound up still drinking the magic potion, but not without the decision to wear little-to-no-makeup at all, to the films' detriment. It's really hard to believe no one can tell them apart; Jekyll's face is only a little contorted, his eyes only a little wilder, some fake choppers in his puss...

Lana Turner basically has nothing to do in that version as Jekyll's "good girl" fiance, while Ingrid Bergman gets to deal with Hyde. Those are actually the best scenes in the film, since Tracey's Hyde is principally after destroying her psychologically before the physical ravishing. Being a talkie goes a long way in articulating Jekyll's desires, though never quite as well Stevenson did. There is also the annoying addition of a priest, whose simple pronouncements about good and evil are a lazy shorthand for setting up Jekyll's central conflict. Victor Fleming's direction lends a nice rhythm to the proceedings, especially the laboratory montages.

The romantic element, entirely absent from the novella, remains with us in J&H's legacy through Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor and its imitators, including the Eddie Murphy remake - the idea of a nerd who invents a potion for transformation in a ladies' man is a gentler version of the story, including the novella's third act twist wherein the transformations start occurring uncontrollably.

I have a feeling the 1931 version is the happy middle in all this, for the balance of a frightful lustful Hyde and tortured Jekyll. Neither of its filmic bookends elaborate the doctor's original mission, to distill not only the evil in himself but the good - an alchemic allegory for adaptation. Mary Reilly may even be the version that best captures a sense of mystery, the main character being one of his unwitting house servants.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bangkok Plagiarist

Some hep cat at the Lionsgate marketing department must have Netflixed The City of Violence, the best action movie of the last 5 years...

They're also the UK distributors for Righteous Kill...coincidence? Or did a bunch of people suddenly get the same idea to make movie posters a little bit interesting for once, and in the same way?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More Croc Crap

I didn't mean to see two killer croc movies in a row, honest. There's a universal unconscious interconnectedness to these things, like when you're thinking about a plate of shrimp and someone says "plate" or "shrimp"....

There was half an evening to kill in Cleveland, the day after the Devo fan convention. No wheels, stuck at Motel 6. Ordered a pizza, turned on the Spectravision and vegged the old fashioned way; with a film destined to be viewed on pay cable by motel denizens nearly ten years later - Lake Placid.

Having not given this flick a second thought since deciding not to see it back in 1999, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of sarcasm that used to pervade 1990s movies. Scream certainly put gratuitous snarkiness into overdrive for horror flicks, and the killer animal subgenre was no exception. I mean, Bats probably had loathsome one-dimensional sarcasm robots as stars, too.

Placid's cast is solidly A-minus, making the glibness all the more unbearable than if hamfistedly conveyed by nobodies. Here, they're just good enough to be awful. Bridget Fonda is a beautiful lady scientist from New York who goes to investigate the titular lake and hates the local hick cops who she has to work with, Bill Pullman and Brendan Gleeson. The latter is actually pretty good since he has to take the bulk of abuse not only from Fonda but Oliver Platt as a completely unconvincing rich eccentric crocodile hunter (before there was a Steve Irwin.)

Every scene with these four is like an unfunny sitcom that never ends. The crocodile scenes...the late great Stan Winston does justice to practical shots of the floating gator on a superficial level but the beast has no personality. He's barely in it; the cast is only intermittently in danger so that they can go ashore out of harm's way and exchange more witlessness. When the third act brings the croc on land, the limitations of and over-reliance upon CGI was another unpleasant 90s flashback. The Rogue CGI gator is significantly better when we see him, and he's got character beyond being a special effect.

Steve Miner directed this thing, he of Friday the 13th parts 2 & 3 and House. I always forget he was busy directing post-Scream irony-horror during the 90s. Recently he directed the abominable direct-to-video remake of Day of the Dead, making House his artistic peak if only by sheer volume of rubber monsters.